History of the Brownville Concert Hall
The Brownville Concert Hall originally opened its doors on April 28, 1990. The present building is a merger of three traditions. It sits astride the foundations of the Brownville Episcopal Church. The main body of the building itself was once the First Christian Church of Peru, Nebraska. The present improvements were based on use of the building prior to the July 22, 1991 fire.
In the mid-1800s, the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and 2nd Street was home not only to the Muir House, but to two of Brownville's leading churches. One, the Brownville Episcopal Church, had closed by the summer of 1894, when 18-year-old Willa Cather came to Brownville to gather material for a newspaper article commemorating Brownville's fortieth anniversary.
What she found was a ghost town. The Episcopal Church building, though abandoned, was still standing. Cather wrote, "...On the little hill to the east stands the Episcopal Church where the elite of ancient Brownville met to worship. The ruin and neglect of the place is pitiful. The stained glass windows are broken in, the walls black with the litter of mould, the carpet white with plaster fallen from the ceiling, the prayer benches broken and the curtains torn, the bishop's chair warped and split, the altar cloth so moth-eaten that it scarcely holds together, the Bible swollen and blistered by rain, and even the white marble cross shattered before the altar."
Cather continued, "Over the door is painted in gold, 'Peace Be Within Thy Walls.' Well, there is peace enough and there is likely to be as long as the walls hold together. The ruins of any church are pitiful enough, but this little church savors so strongly of cassocks and gowns and 'world without an end, amen' and general eliteness, that the ruin and shabbiness is almost grotesque. It has been more marred than the other churches in the town because it possessed beauty, originality, and had something to lose."
The main auditorium of the Concert Hall was built in the summer of 1904 on 5th Street in Peru, Nebraska. The Peru Christian Church had been organized in 1896. They held their meetings in the Peru Opera House. In 1904, Mr. Louis Fisher offered to pay half of the cost of erecting a church building. The congregation purchased the building of the St. Mary's Episcopal Church, which had not been used for years. The Episcopal Church building was dismantled and the materials used, in large part, to build the new structure which opened for services in 1904. The Peru church ceased to operate in 1970, when the congregation merged with other churches to form the Peru Union Church. Thereafter, the building served as a home, an apartment building, and as a Gospel Church.
The building was abandoned when purchased in 1989 by Jim and Ruth Keene of Omaha. The building was then moved in one piece from Peru to Brownville, and set atop a new foundation and basement. The original 1904 stained glass windows and church pews came along to Brownville with the building.
The backstage area was added during the 1989-90 restoration. An 800-pound cast iron bell, donated by the Joe Ogle family in his memory, was installed in the steeple. The bell had once been part of the Ogle's Dawson, Nebraska, church, which was torn down some years ago. The front of the Peru church was remodeled slightly to change the two-level pulpit area into a concert stage. An elevator was added to accommodate the handicapped. The 1904 stained glass windows were restored.
The first performance in the Concert Hall was the 1989 Christmas Show. The hall was not yet complete, but the show worked well.
The building was officially dedicated as a concert hall on April 28, 1990 in a special ceremony at which Mr. Charles R. Longsworth, President of Colonial Williamsburg, was the principal speaker. Mr. Longsworth recounted the history of Brownville, and talked of the high state of civilization that existed here, and of the importance of music in the life of this early, bustling frontier city.
He said, "Surely the cultural history this community offers will continue to be strengthened, and I hope, expanded with music, drama, comedy, dance, debates and all the performing arts presented in the years to come in this extraordinary building which has been adapted so beautifully."
In July of 1991 lightning struck the steeple and set the concert hall afire. The fire burned for three hours before it could be brought under control. By the time the fire was out, the building and virtually all of the equipment in it had been ruined. A decision was made to rebuild the hall. The rebuilding work began during the last week in August, 1991.
The bell tower and entry were completely destroyed by the fire. The new bell tower and entry way differ considerably from the original. The 800-pound cast iron bell has been replaced by an electronic carillon. The bell is displayed on a pedestal on the front lawn of the concert hall.
Extensive repair and replacement of the roof was necessary. The walls and ceilings had to be removed throughout the structure and replaced. Most of the woodwork was removed from the damaged structure, cleaned, repainted and reinstalled. A small addition was added to the front of the building to accommodate enhanced technical facilities.
The 1904 stained glass windows (with the exception of the large south window) were essentially destroyed during the fire. Using the remnants of the damaged windows and photographs, new windows were constructed which exactly replicate the originals. Those pieces of glass that survived the fire were incorporated into the new windows. The four roundels depicting flowers of the four seasons replaced the religious symbols of the 1904 windows. The stained glass windows in the entry way are new, and commemorate the 1991 rebuilding and reopening of the facility as Brownville's concert hall.
The hall reopened on November 30, 1991. Once again the corner of 2nd and Atlantic is an important place in town, as it was when the Episcopal Church operated. Contrary to Willa Cather's lament, the beauty of the place is not lost. The inscription over the door still reads, "Peace Be Within Thy Walls."
The concert-goer can still gaze at the stained glass windows and let the beauty of the music recreate the beauty of the wedding, baptism, or service they might have experienced in this building in another time.
The three traditions of this building, this piece of Nebraska history, merge together - through music - to enhance the lives and souls of all who enter.
Shown above is a reproduction of an original painting of the Brownville Concert Hall by Nebraska artist Allan Tubach. Mr. Tubach generously donated the original painting and reproduction rights to the Brownville Concert Series.